Of university students who participated in a new survey, 61% were at risk of clinical depression, researchers report.

That’s twice the rate prior to the pandemic. This rise in depression came alongside dramatic shifts in lifestyle habits, according to the research.

The United States spends more than $200 billion every year to treat and manage mental health. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic not only has deepened the chasm for those experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety; the chasm has also widened, affecting more people.

The new study documents dramatic changes in physical activity, sleep, and time use at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Disruptions to physical activity emerged as a leading risk factor for depression. Importantly, those who maintained their exercise habits were at significantly lower risk than those who experienced large declines in physical activity. While physical activity resumed in early summer, mental well-being did not automatically rebound.

“There is an alarming rise in the rate of anxiety and depression among young adults, especially among college students,” says senior author Silvia Saccardo, assistant professor in the social and decision sciences department at Carnegie Mellon University. “The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis in this vulnerable population.”

The researchers examined data gathered from 682 college students who used a smartphone app and a wearable tracker for spring 2019, fall 2019, and spring 2020. Their results show large disruptions in physical activity, sleep, computer/phone screen time, and social interaction, alongside large declines in well-being. This dataset spans the onset of social isolation during the early months of the pandemic.

The team found that participants who practiced healthy habits prior to the pandemic—scheduled physical activity and maintained an active social life—were at a higher risk for depression as the pandemic continued. After a decline, restoration of physical activity was not met with a rebound in mental well-being.

Read the full article about college student depression by Stacy Kish at Futurity.